Inside the Union Building (p8)

Leaving the Mason’s opulent anteroom behind, we turned our attention to the great meeting hall itself. But before we could do that we first had to make our way through another robing room. Like the robing found a floor below here, this room would have originally been used by members in preparation for the Masons’ highly ritualistic ceremonies. Today, however, the room serves a new purpose as a new kitchen area for the neighboring meeting hall. While many of the rooms original charms – such as its tin ceilings – have managed to survive, spaces originally home to lockers are now home to a kitchen counter and a pair of bathrooms.

As interesting as bathrooms and kitchen counters may be, what we were really interested in sat just beyond those large double doors seen to the left….

After passing through those rather dramatic double doors, the great hall that sprawled out before us was a bit more muted then I had envisioned. While many of the exuberant excesses found in the adjacent anteroom were still present, one major component was glaringly absent. That would be those intricately detailed and painted tin ceilings. While the generous use of those large exposed beams were awe inspiring, the simple white ceilings interspaced between those beams were a bit subdued.

Turns out the original hall was a bit more impressive in its youth but the ravages of age that ad took their toll on the Union Building did most of its damage here in the lodge room. Before the park took possession of the building, the old Masons hall was in almost total ruin, thanks primarily to a leaking roof. That leak had caused the majority of the ceiling here to collapse, completely destroying the hall’s original tin ceiling and taking most of the floor with it.

While the park was able to repair the damage and reconstruct the ceiling’s uniquely patterned exposed beams (as well as the floor), the ceiling was just too far gone to replace. The more subdued ceiling seen here in its plcae was the best outcome given such difficult circumstances, an unfortunate but necessary decision.

While the ceiling may have been lost, a great deal of the rooms other details do happen to remain. These include the original tin cornice, chair rail, and trim. The large double doors seen here are also original. It leads off into the adjacent reception room we explored previously.

Also present here are those faux panels and intricate stencil work, which surround the room on three walls. On the fourth wall, however, we find something a bit different.

Here – on the east wall – stands a moderately sized stage. This is original to the Masons and was used by them for parts of their rituals. The space would also be used for more then a few local talent shows, concerts, and probably bingo once and a while. It’s a role the space will continue to serve, as there will be no interpretive exhibits here an the park plans to open it for use by the community for presentations, lectures, and other similar events.

In concurrence with the Masons’ more dramatic sensibilities, this stage was once surrounded by a painted promesicum featuring classical symbology such as lion statues and columns. Though now removed, some of that promesicum did survive the room’s destruction and is currently in storage. Hopefully to once again grace the stage in the future.

Backstage there are a few more remnants of the stage’s early life sprinkled about; like these interesting artifacts believed to once be part of the scenery mechanism.

As is customary there is a small pass through behind the stage to allow actors to switch sides. It looks to have original been lit by the neighboring windows, but new Industrial looking lights are now installed here.

Before heading back downstairs we take one last look across the stage. Originally thee would have been a staircase leading down into the neighboring reception room from the opposite side of the stage, but that has been replaced by a wheelchair elevator for accessibility.

Stepping down off the stage I could only imagine what the room might have been like during the building’s more exuberant youth. The movers and shakers of the day, all gathering here in ritualistic ceremonies and grand dinners. Outside these windows the great booming metropolis of Calumet tumultuously labored and leisured, pushed forward by the clanging of rock crushers and the whistles of steam engines. For over a century that lively ballet of sight and sound continued on, until those crushers and engines were silenced and the people vacated the streets. But still the Union Building stood, witnessing the resultant exodus and the stillness that followed. Soon its rooms – including the great hall I was standing in now – were vacated and abandoned. Those movers and shakers that once haunted this place were long dead and gone, and only the silent lions surrounding the stage remained.

Yet today, over 120 years since it was first built, the Union Building is silent no more. Its grand halls and opulent rooms have been restored to their former glory, and its spaces utilized to commemorate and celebrate the great metropolis that once churned outside. Best yet, starting today, those halls and rooms will once again be home to the voices of peoples from all across the globe, coming together to share in their common interest and respect for the Copper Country’s rich heritage. The Union Building is reborn anew, and with it a new chapter in Calumet’s turbulent history.

The new Keweenaw National Historical Park’s Calumet Visitor Center – housed within the newly renovated Union Building – is open to the public from 9am to 5pm starting today.

Show More


  1. Excellent series and great writing!

    I’m so thankful to have been lucky enough to be a small part of the Union Building project. :)

  2. I will admit, before reading this series I was well aware of the millions and millions of our tax dollars being poured into this project. My original thoughts were that Calumet could certainly use the influx of cash, but for this? I mean looking around at the unemployment and the failing of some of the revamping of the downtown district, couldn’t those funds be used a bit more judiciously? Maybe finding ,fostering, and attracting new and technologically advanced industries to the area that would provide meaningful and long range employment to the many local talented unemployed to the area? But after reading this series and especially the last two paragraphs of this last installment , I’m beginning to think a little differently. Maybe this will attract more attention to the area, and help people appreciate whats up here. Maybe just maybe this is just what Calumet needs to ensure its long range survival. Maybe just maybe tourism is the source of the long range employment that Calumet so desperately needs.

  3. Gator raises some valid points. The question of what happens after the mines close has been around for nearly 100 years. My Great-grandfather saw the writing on 81st haulage level wall and moved his branch of the family to Wisconsin in 1920 despite a history in the area that went back to the 1840’s. Both he and my Grandparents always thought of the Copper Country as “home” but were always saddened by the obvious decline they saw on every trip back. I was around to see the last of the mines in operation and was sorry to see them close. That appeared to be the end. But then there was the rise of the snowmobile. Tourism went from just a business that served the “summer people” and the “leaf people” to a year-round enterprise. The infrastructure of rail lines that once hauled copper rock became some of the best snowmobile and ATV trails in the US. Let’s hope these restorations will help the overall situation in the Copper Country, and I hope the labor used was local as much as possible. Tourism is a double edged sword, it helps the local economy but the wages paid are not near what industry pays. Also, as we are seeing an increase in “Summer” and retirement home owners, there will be a very strong NIMBY reaction to any attempt to reestablish an industrial base.

  4. I disagree Paul. As industry moves more and more towards technologies and “clean” products, I think there is a great deal of opportunity for new industries to populate the Keweenaw. I think the Copper Country is a great selling location for businesses looking to sell a family-friendly, wholesome image.
    Tourism I agree is double edged, but not because of a battle with industry but because of the tourists themselves. Much like the adventurers that visited places like Yellowstone and Yosemite, many of the more “hardcore” tourists – those associated with ATVs and snowmobiles – think the UP is nothing but a giant playground. A place to rip up and damage and then head back home after a weekend away.
    I think the visitors center is a monumental step, being a younger member of the CC, I know there is a major disconnect between the “flash and lights and happening places” mentality of the younger generations, and those that the the Keweenaw for the gem of history that it is. There are a great deal that believe the copper industry came and went, and with it should go all remnants of its existence. I was so happy to see the testament to the Italian Hall at the visitors center, because I think a lot of people, in this area and in the nation, can appreciate a picture, but will forever be awestruck at the ability to visit a building, like the union hall over 100 years after it was erected, and step on the same floor, admire the same ceiling, touch the brick of a fireplace, that someone else did in all those years the building stood before them.
    We have something tangible, we have a truly visitable place for the area to see, that shouts, “this is important! We are here! We are saving this! We are a GOOD THING!”
    I’m so incredibly excited to see the progress the park continues to make in preserving this area, the history, and breathing new life and purpose into an industry that to most “has come and gone.”

    :) (Just cuz I always have to have a smiley)

  5. Ashley,
    You might want to take another look at your post regarding “hardcore” tourists. In fact, you might want to look within, to the very people that LIVE in Houghton and Keweenaw Counties. There has long been the belief that nobody was going to tell me what I can and can’t do….where I can and can’t go type of mentality among the residents. I’ve been a “Keweenaw Tourist” for the past 30 years and I have seen the local attitude first hand. Then there are those of us who do enjoy, as tourists, the freedom that the U.P. allows to explore and enjoy….yes, most times with a motorized means of transportation. My point is simply this, it’s not just the tourists and in fact the amount of destruction motorized sports supposedly create is mostly overstated. I’m not saying that a few bad apples don’t tarnish the whole…but your statement is quite generalized and largely unfair.

    Paul’s point that winter tourism (and lately ATV use) has allowed many area businesses to stay open year round and EMPLOY Keweenaw residents is a good thing. I can tell you from first hand experience, that often times, a tourist who enjoys a snowmobile trip will come back in the summer to enjoy a completely different landscape. I am one of those winter tourists turned ALL YEAR. I will be sure to pay a visit to the Keweenaw Historical Park’s new Union Building exhibits. And, I may even arrive via snowmobile or ATV….I’ll bet that I’ll still be most welcome.

  6. Steve. I feel my comment was largely misunderstood. My reference to the “hardcore” tourists was in fact in reference to the bad apples of the group. I know and appreciate fully the impact that tourism – in all seasons and for all purposes – is important to the area, and is definitely the leader in revenue for the area. I’d be a hypocrite to say the least if I snubbed my nose at those that came here to snowmobile or ATV, because I myself enjoy those activities and while I support them as a tourism draw, I believe they must be monitored and regulated so historic sites and gorgeous landscapes are not tarnished by an bad apple tourist.

    Hope that clarifies what I was saying.

  7. Ashley,
    Fair enough. Clarification accepted. :) I’ll still stand by my Local versus Tourist commentary though…it’s not just the bad apple tourists that need to be aware.

    Looking forward to a winter of great snow and great enjoyment for both of us! As a “local” of some repute has been known to say, “Think Snow”!

  8. Steve,
    I’ll give you the local versus tourists argument you make. It makes me sad to think I’ve lived here all my life and there are so many people, yes even within my own family, that don’t feel the excitement and share the sentiments of excitement and wonder I have when standing at places like the steel dam in Redridge or driving across Michigan’s oldest concrete in Calumet.
    It’s nice to find kindred who appreciate it – tourist or no. So here’s a virtual handshake of friendship, but stop thinking snow! ;)

  9. Kindred Ashley,

    Don’t feel bad about the “Locals” aspect….trust me when I tell you it’s not just Da Keweenaw where I have witnessed this. Prime example, I have gone fishing in Northwestern Ontario nearly my entire life. When you step off the boat and onto an island, say to have a shore lunch, the garbage and crap that is simply left behind is appalling. I used to honestly believe that it was the tourists until several local friends (there’s that “local” word again :) )told me in no uncertain terms that it was their fellow Canadians trashing the place…and how ashamed they were. Sooooo, all we can do is try to set a good example and hope that others follow our lead.

    If I were to say Think Snow very quietly would that be OK?? :)

  10. Where did you go in Ontario? I went a few times to Mijinemungshing Lake. Absolutely beautiful! The fishing was good too. And speaking of that $#!^ snow, we used to go first or second week in May, and there were days when it would snow on us. But it was SO worth it! We also went up 1 year to Dog lake, but that just wasn’t the same. I was much more of a fan of the rustic portages of the Lake Superior Provincial parks. :)

    I never think snow, I think spring. (Although I do enjoy the snow once it’s here, but it never means I have to like the process of its arrival. haha)

  11. Ashley and Steve, I would say it is part of human nature that some of us choose to live like humans while some choose to live like swine – although that is an insult to pigs since they will be neat if given the chance. So I guess the tourists and the locals are equally represented. Have to give the locals the edge on big items such as stoves, refrigerators, and cars in the woods.
    Ashley it would be great if some sort of clean and green industry located in the Copper Country. I am afraid the Copper Country faces some impediments to such a development. Industry looks at many factors in siting a plant. Is it close to the resource? Is it close to the customer? Is there labor available? Those are just 3. If the resource is lumber the CC wins. Copper not so much, it is too high cost at this time. Potential labor is there, but are the skill sets there?. The killer is location and transportation infrastructure. Industry really hates shipping. If it has to ship both the inputs and the product long distances, industry will look for a better location. It wants either the resource or the customer close – preferably both. So the Copper Country has resources and a good potential for labor. However, exploitation of those resources have proven to be very controversial over the past few decades in the UP as well as the US as a whole. There are occasional bits that appear about “over cutting” the Keweenaw forests and a proposal to mine a copper ore deposit near Gratiot Lake brought out the pitchforks and torches in short order. The Gratiot Lake case was about 15-20 years ago. Then there is still the question of transportation, what will it cost to get a product to market?
    Continued development of tourism needs to continue since it is the best at the moment. The movers and shakers of the Copper Country need to keep looking for other alternatives. A war in the mid-east or if Mr. O gets his wish for $5 gas could pop the tourist bubble.

  12. Personally, I don’t think there are so many people driving hundreds of miles to tear up the Keweenaw forests. I think most of us willing to drive a whole day are doing it because we appreciate the beauty and/or the history. So where is the incentive to damage either? There is plenty of land to trash closer to home. I can’t believe that guys are hauling old cars or appliances from Detroit to leave them in Houghton County. What about the vandalism of historic sites or repeated break-ins to private property? Somebody is making a long road trip every weekend to make this kind of mischief? I suspect that those most prone to vandalize have limited resources or motivation to travel a lot anyway. If you were born and raised in the Copper County you would have a different perspective of the local area.

  13. “If you were born and raised in the Copper County you would have a different perspective of the local area.” – Paul. I was born and raised in the Copper Country, and still live here.
    I addressed both issues within my initial comment, as well as my follow up comments. I’m not claiming that all damage and vandalism is coming from outside sources, but it does still happen, I’ve seen first hand some of the things some tourists do when they come to the area. But I also have plenty of stories of local people that I know that have done malicious things around here too.
    The original comment, if you read it again, addressed both issues, both the “bad apples” of tourists, as well as the fact that places like the union building stand as a triumph to those of us in the local community that are looking to save and preserve these sites, and give new importance to old ruins, so those within the community that would rather tear them up with a sled or vandalize them with graffiti will hopefully think twice.

    Again, hope this clarifies.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *